As somebody else once said... Kentucky senator Rand Paul exposed for plagiarism

Out of America: He has been nailed for using in a book of his a passage taken from Forbes magazine – but only in America could it threaten his promising career

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Hell, here in the US, hath no fury like the anti-plagiarism brigade unleashed. The latest to discover this truth is Kentucky's junior senator Rand Paul, widely credited with White House ambitions. Mr Paul has been triply nailed: for using in a book of his a passage taken from Forbes magazine; for reproducing, verbatim, in a newspaper column a sentence from another magazine, The Week; and (gasp) for lifting from the online encyclopedia Wikipedia the latter's description of a science-fiction movie for use in a speech, without mention of the source.

As a result Paul has been taken to the woodshed, as they say in these parts. He has lost his newspaper column. A scrappy Republican of Tea Party leanings, he has inevitably been castigated in the liberal media. The New York Times has opined about "the biggest crisis of his young political career … one that threatens his ambitions to run for president in 2016". And all because Paul did what almost everyone who's ever put pen to paper or uttered a word in public in the course of making a living, has also done. Wittingly or unwittingly, he has committed plagiarism.

Plagiarism isn't of course a specifically American problem. In the last couple of years, two very learned German government ministers were forced to step down after it emerged they had stolen tracts of their university doctoral theses from elsewhere. Far more serious in terms of consequences, the bulk of the infamous "Dodgy Dossier" used by the Blair government to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq was lifted – even complete with misprints – from a paper by an Iraqi-American academic.

And plagiarism is as old as time. According to Wikipedia (note how careful I am to cite my source) the Roman politician and orator Cicero may have been one of the earliest culprits, modelling his speeches against Mark Antony after Caesar's murder on the tirades of Demosthenes against Philip of Macedon three centuries before.

Nowhere, however, does plagiarism cause quite the fuss it does here. This is not an attempt to defend plagiarism; at best it's laziness, at worst downright fraud. But the gravity of the offence varies. Plagiarism is most serious in academe, where original thought is the coinage of the realm. To debase that coinage is a crime. Whether you're a student stealing material to pass an exam, or a doctoral candidate passing off others' research and conclusions as your own, it's equally unpardonable.

Less so, I would argue, in journalism, where the pressure to come up with words fast is ever-present. Who among us scribes would swear we had never, ever, been offenders – in an age where everything is composed on a screen, and a pair of keystrokes suffices to cut and paste data, phrases and sentences (dare one mention, from Wikipedia?), into one's work.

In some cases, as with Rand Paul, the crime is grotesquely exaggerated. Plagiarism by politicians seems to me the least serious of all. For one thing, they have so little to gain; if you're quoting Churchill or Lincoln, Thatcher or Mandela, to make a point, then why not say so? The sin of Mr Paul (or more likely his speechwriters and staffers) was laziness. And if the odd unattributed sentence was the worst politicians got up to, the world would be a far better place.

And isn't the actual act of plagiarism a form of flattery? What most upset Ibrahim al-Marashi, whose work was plundered for the Dodgy Dossier, was not the theft itself, or the lack of monetary compensation, but the lack of a mention. As an academic, he told The Times of London when the shabby tale came to light: "The only thing you ask for in return is that they include a citation of your work."

But even that convention fades with time. Take the first line of this piece. Riff on "hell hath no fury" and you are lifting, without attribution, from the 17th-century playwright William Congreve. It brings back the old line about Oscar Wilde, when that 19th-century playwright and wit expressed admiration for someone else's bon mot. "I wish I'd said that," Wilde said. Instantly came the retort, "You will, Oscar, you will."

Alas, such jokes are rarely heard in the US. Over my 20-plus years here, scarcely one has gone by without a plagiarism scandal. The bulk have involved journalists and, however grovelling the apology, the punishment has almost always been dismissal. Nowhere does the press take itself as seriously as in America.

But eminent historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose have also been nailed. Goodwin was a popular figure who showed suitable contrition before restoring her reputation with Team of Rivals, her much lauded book about Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet. The accusations against Ambrose surfaced in 2002, a few months before his death, too late for him to provide a proper answer.

Then there are the politicians. In one respect at least, Martin Luther King was fortunate. Confirmation of long-standing allegations that he had plagiarised parts of his doctoral dissertation came only in 1990, decades after his death, and have had scant impact on his legacy and saint-like standing. How different perhaps, if he had lived.

The most spectacular case of course was that of Joe Biden, whose presidential bid in 1988 fell apart after two revelations of plagiarism, one dating back to his law school days, the other that he had lifted words from Neil Kinnock, then Labour Party leader, without attribution. The first was serious, the second was fatal. But Biden would recover. He's now vice-president and considering his own run in 2016 for the Democratic nomination. Yes, it's possible (barely): Paul versus Biden for the White House three years hence – the battle of the plagiarists.

The rest of us sinners in the meantime will just have to plead cryptomnesia, defined by Wikipedia as when "a forgotten memory returns without it being recognised as such by the subject, who believes it is something new and original". You see, I'm not a plagiarist. I cite my sources.

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